It is no coincidence that Greenpeace first set sail from Vancouver. Since time immemorial, when First Nations caught salmon in reef nets dragged between two canoes, the bounty of the ocean has been a sacred way of life. Today, environmentalism is a local religion. Wild, seasonal and sustainable is the tribal mantra for most chefs, who are blessed with an abundant diversity of impeccably fresh – or high-quality frozen-at-sea – fish: huge halibut, velvety sablefish, delicate albacore tuna and five types of salmon.
Fishmongers from China and Japan pay top dollar for British Columbia’s clean, safe shellfish, which include plump spot prawns, sweet Dungeness crab, creamy sea urchins and geoduck clams. The aquaculture industry also does an excellent job of growing species not provided by nature. Pacific oysters, in particular, are revered for their small cups and complex flavours, which range from sweet and fruity to vegetal and stony, depending on the kelp-rich meroir of the glacier-fed waters and island-sheltered passageways in which they filter and feed.
Whether you go to the aquarium for the beluga show or stay for a family sleepover (seriously, you can bed down beside the shark gallery and wake up to a continental breakfast), visitors will walk away from Canada’s largest marine wildlife museum with a better appreciation for making ocean-friendly choices at dinner. In addition to being a major tourist attraction – idyllically situated in the middle of a 1000-acre urban forest ringed by the beachside Seawall – the aquarium is a centre for marine research, conservation and marine-animal rehabilitation. Among its many educational endeavours is a programme called Ocean Wise.
Based on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s acclaimed Seafood Watch Programme, Ocean Wise works with restaurants and food service companies to promote sustainable seafood to the general public. Participating restaurants (300-plus in Canada) display the Ocean Wise symbol next to the best choices on their menu, thereby helping diners eat with a clear conscience. Ocean Wise recently launched an initiative to test small-scale Canadian seafood operations that catch less desirable/sexy/marketable fish (i.e. herring, sardines).
Even with all of Vancouver’s public-education programmes, it is still sometimes hard for shoppers to know whether the canned tuna they bought to stuff in a sandwich was inadvertently caught with an unwanted dolphin in the same net. Finest at Sea, a boutique seafood company and fish shop that sells only sustainable seafood caught by its own local fleets, takes all that worry away.
If you are in the mood to cook, rest assured that all the salmon, sablefish, lingcod, albacore tuna and spot prawns sold in this shop are caught by hook or approved trap (no drag netting or bottom fishing that scrapes the ocean floor bare). It's all wild, local and flash-frozen at sea, in addition to being top quality, reasonably priced and highly coveted by city chefs in the know. No kitchen in your hotel suite? Stop in to shuck and slurp a few oysters at the counter or pick up some candied salmon smoked onsite. The company is co-owned by a local senior chef and also offers up hot smoked mussels, cold smoked lox, salads and pickled preserves that make perfect picnic snacks.
Vancouverites are crazy about sushi. There are reportedly more than 600 sushi outlets in Metro Vancouver, spanning the gamut from refined omakase (chef’s choice) tasting menus to plasticwrapped take-out. Everyone has a favourite neighbourhood joint that they will defend to the death in virtual smackdown debates that routinely pop up on food blogs and in the mainstream press. Visitors with less fussy palates will generally be pleased with whatever fresh fish is being 4 sliced up at almost any little hole-in-wall. Whether you dine high or low, the prices are a steal compared to most major cities.
It doesn’t get fresher than the Go Fish Ocean Emporium in West Vancouver. A perennially popular outdoor shack, Go Fish is located in a parking lot at the edge of Fishermen’s Wharf (across the harbour from the Granville Island Public Market and accessible by bridge). Each morning, the cooks buy their fish from commercial boats at the end of the jetty. When the supply runs out, they close shop for the day. The fish and chips, deep-fried in a light, airy tempura batter, are legendary.
Choose from a selection of cod, salmon or halibut, any of which can also be simply chargrilled and served on a bed of tangy organic greens. Sandwiches include juicy oyster po’boys slathered with chipotle crema, ponzu-glazed albacore tuna and grilled salmon – dressed with sidestripe shrimp mayonnaise and Japanese pickles on a Portuguese bun or wrapped in flour tortillas with cilantrospiked salsa.
Specials include chowders, ceviche and whatever seasonal catch – scallops, prawns, perhaps the rare white spring salmon – was hooked that day. The kitchen, custom-built in a metal shipping container, is open year-round. Alfresco picnic tables on the fenced wooden deck fill up fast on sunny afternoons. Rain or shine, expect a long queue.
But don’t confuse shellfish farms with salmon farming. Tourists will no doubt hear much preaching against BC’s controversial open-net (primarily Norwegian-owned) salmon aquaculture industry, which is being blamed for declining wild stocks. Yet there may be an enlightened solution on the horizon. Kuterra, a new land-based salmon farm owned by ’Namgis First Nations on Vancouver Island, is being hailed as the “fish farm of the future”. Raised in closed containers with recycled water, Kuterra salmon isn’t just eco-friendly – it tastes divine.
Masayoshi offers the best of both worlds. The small, East End neighbourhood joint attracts local families for its casual à la carte offerings, alongside destination diners who huddle around the bar for the chef’s sublimely artistic daily creations.
Be sure to order the glistening fresh sashimi with real wasabi root grated on a sharkskin rasp. And don’t miss the steampunk-style dashi, steeped to order at the table in a reserve-gravity siphon coffee maker, which distills an exceptionally clear, forest-floor fragrant broth. If you are feeling particularly indulgent, try the marbled bluefin tuna otoro. Rich, excessively fatty and in danger of extinction, bluefin tuna is definitely not Ocean Wise-approved. But isn’t it nice to know that Vancouver has a naughty side too?